Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: Influence and Impact on Great Britain

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: Influence and Impact on Great Britain
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  • 0:01 Margaret Thatcher
  • 0:28 Early Life
  • 1:18 Early Career
  • 3:21 Prime Minister
  • 6:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life and political career of Great Britain's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. A staunch conservative, her controversial policies guided Britain through one of its toughest economic times.

Margaret Thatcher

Some things people just either love or hate. Just like that loudmouth athlete you can't stand, or that wacky ice cream flavor that you seem to be the only one to enjoy, history is also full of these polarizing figures. Perhaps no figure in 20th-century British history, maybe in all of British history, has polarized a nation and historians alike like the United Kingdom's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Early Life

Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925 in the small town of Grantham in eastern England as Margaret Roberts. Her family ran a grocery business in the town and she grew up in an apartment above her father's store. In addition to being the town grocer, her father was also a town councilman with a decidedly conservative political philosophy. Despite these relatively humble beginnings, Thatcher went on to Oxford where she studied chemistry.

After a few years as a research chemist, Thatcher tired of academia and instead retrained to become a barrister (the British version of U.S. lawyers), and focused her energies on politics. This was not an entirely new interest for Thatcher; while at Oxford, she had been elected president of the Student Conservative Association. She became Margaret Thatcher when she married Dennis Thatcher in 1951.

Early Career

Thatcher first ran for political office when she attempted to win the parliamentary seat in Dartford in 1950 and 1951. From the start Thatcher was a devout conservative, and she was soundly defeated in both elections because Dartford was a Labour Party stronghold at the time. It was not until 1959 that Thatcher won her first seat in Parliament, becoming the MP for Finchley, a constituency in north London. Thatcher was a young star of the Conservative Party in the 1950s because her Dartford campaigns had made her semi-famous for her easy public speaking manner and strong opinions.

Once in Parliament, she rose quickly through the ranks, serving in various posts in the 1960s in Edward Heath's shadow cabinet. After the Conservatives won the 1970 election and Heath became prime minister, she joined his cabinet as Education Secretary. Thatcher's right-wing policies as Education Secretary, such as ending the free milk for students program in British schools, earned her enemies on the radical left and her speeches were routinely disrupted by protesters. Heath listened to his junior Education Secretary little, and Thatcher grew increasingly frustrated with her own position and that of women in British politics, famously stating in 1973 'I don't think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.'

The Heath government was wracked with economic problems and fell in 1974 when the Labour Party regained power. After the electoral loss Thatcher challenged Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party and won, surprising many political commentators at the time.

The economic problems Britain faced during the Heath administration persisted throughout the 1970s. Trade unions were routinely on strike, inflation of the British Pound was hurting the purchasing power of the British people and companies alike, and in 1976 Britain needed an emergency IMF loan to avoid bankruptcy. These persistent issues, in part, helped Thatcher and the Conservative Party win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons and make Margaret Thatcher Britain's first female prime minister in 1979.

Prime Minister

As prime minister, Thatcher's Britain faced several serious economic problems and things were sure to get worse before they got any better. However, Thatcher stuck to her conservative principles, and lowered income taxes and made up the difference by raising indirect taxation, such as sales tax. She similarly raised interest rates in order to battle the British Pound's runaway inflation. While the measures stabilized the Pound, they hurt domestic industry, causing many factories to close their doors due to the raised interest rates on their business loans. Thatcher also was determined to break the power of the trade unions in Britain and forced miners, whose union was particularly strong, back to work on several occasions during her premiership.

Thatcher's policies were polarizing and controversial, and economists and historians today still debate their merit and efficacy. Nevertheless, it was not Thatcher's policies that won her reelection in 1983, but her military action in the Falkland Islands in 1982. The Falkland Islands are a chain of islands just off the coast of Argentina and owned by Great Britain. In April 1982, Argentina invaded, legitimating a claim to the islands they had made for decades.

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